How to compassionately and gently aid the suffering – Q&A with Simon P. Stocks

qawithsimonstocksWith sensitivity and compassion, Simon Stocks’ Songs for Suffering leads readers through the Psalms in times of difficulty and despair. The Psalms are the ideal resource to keep someone in contact with God through such times of difficulty. They take pain and trouble seriously, and afford dignity to the sufferer by expressing what we feel in these times. The Psalms even allow negative responses toward God to be voiced in a safe context and take seriously God’s capacity for redemption. In the Psalms, evil and its agents are real, and this allows a measured and God-centered response to those who cause suffering. This interview with Stocks touches upon this idea, and gives an excellent peek at the topics further explored in Songs for Suffering!

1. When you were planning Songs for Suffering, did you start with specific psalms in mind, and build your topics around them? Or did you think of your topics and then find psalms that fit them?

The starting point for the book was its overall structure, which in some ways mirrors the structure of a psalm of lament and is intended to lead the reader through a process. That overall structure/process yielded the topics, and I then chose psalms for each chapter that best illustrate the topic concerned.

2. Was there any aspect of suffering you wanted to talk about but couldn’t find an appropriate psalm for?

I don’t recall that being the case, probably because of the form of the psalms acting as the starting point for the whole exercise. In addition, the psalms are, on the whole, worded very generally. Few of them offer specific details of what the psalmist is experiencing, but use generic terminology. This is one of the beauties of them, that they are consequently so adaptable and applicable to a wide range of circumstances.

3. As you discuss in your book, suffering can be very isolating, especially because people don’t always respond well to someone honestly expressing negative feelings. Do you have any recommendations for how people who encounter others in the midst of suffering can respond in more helpful ways?

I think the fundamental thing is to listen to the person concerned: to give them your attention, and to show a genuine interest. That alone can be tremendously reassuring and affirming. Try to let the person concerned take the lead in the conversation, and give them the opportunity to say more. The obvious thing to avoid is giving any opinion/advice about what the other person is feeling.

4. Similarly, how would you encourage those who have had bad experiences reaching out to others (or God) for help to keep trying?

Wow, this is much more difficult. You’re asking me to give advice to someone who is suffering—see my last answer! Personally, I have found it helpful to first voice my struggles out loud to myself. I find this easier when I am walking. So I would go out for a walk and have a good rant (out loud) about what is bothering me (including the unhelpful responses I have had from others). I would then find it much easier to express those same things (more calmly) to other people or to God in prayer.

5. You spend a lot of time talking about how people often see God as the problem in the midst of suffering. What made you decide to focus on that?

Firstly because that’s what the psalmists do. They have a strong sense of God’s sovereignty and so in some sense God is always the problem, since God could resolve the cause of the suffering but is not doing so.

Secondly because I think it is the most challenging and intractable aspect. If you are affected by illness or hardship or loss, you can turn to God for help. (This is reflected in the intercessions that form the dominant part of many of our prayer lives.) But if God has failed you, what then? This is when people are most likely to lose their faith. Surely it is better, with the psalmist, to accuse God of turning away, than to turn away ourselves.

6. Songs for Suffering makes it clear that it is important for those who are in the midst of suffering to both be attentive to their own feelings and look beyond those feelings to focus on God. How should people balance those competing needs?

This relates to the structure of the book and the structure of psalms of lament. A response to suffering that says “Turn to God. Focus on God. Praise God anyway.” might not help with the resolution of personal negative feelings, and result only in a focus on God that is a hollow sham. But if we attend to the reality of our feelings and allow ourselves to express them to God, then we might find the space and strength we need to get a fresh perspective on God, and our relationship with God will be enriched.

So the balance is in working with the reality of our feelings, but not as an end in itself, but as a means of reconnecting authentically with God and allowing God to work within us.

7. You make a strong case for complaining against God, and note that that runs counter to common Christian messages about appropriate conduct toward God. How did you come to see the importance of making such complaints? Do you have any suggestions for how churches could better teach people about healthy complaining?

Again this comes directly from the psalms, one of the most strident examples being Psalm 44. Realistically, I tend to feel that our unhappiness forces an outlet somewhere, and a reluctance to complain to God results in an awful lot of complaining against each other.

As I relate in the book, my own formative experiences of complaint were very unhealthy, and it was only when I had experienced healthy complaint that I could see it differently. So any form of teaching in this area needs to include modeling as well as explanation. A valuable exercise can be to start with a relatively trivial matter and to experiment with complaining about it, followed up with some time for reflection and discussion on what the experience felt like and what its effects were.

Songs for Suffering by Simon P. StocksRev. Dr. Simon Stocks teaches Biblical Studies at St Augustine’s College of Theology, England (formerly known as SEITE). He is Chair of the Theological Educators’ Network and also ministers in the Anglican parish of Christ Church, Purley. After a career in civil engineering, he trained for ministry and worked in parish ministry in the Diocese of Southwark, before undertaking doctoral studies. His research interests include the interactions between poetic form and interpretation in Hebrew poetry, and the theology of lament.

For more information about Songs for Suffering, please visit our website.

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